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Lives of the Poets Paperback – October 31, 2000

3.9 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Michael Schmidt's Lives of the Poets should engender endless debates. Anytime anyone attempts a project this monumental--nothing less than the entire history of poetry in English, after all!--plenty of people will disagree with how he or she goes about it. Take, for example, the fact that Schmidt crams 500 years of poetry (Richard Rolle of Hampole through Walt Whitman) into the first half of his massive tome, then spreads a mere century and a half (Emily Dickinson to the present) across the rest. And even 900-plus pages isn't enough space to treat every poet equally--indeed, it may be that Schmidt's choices will spark the liveliest disagreements. Then there are his various pronunciamentos on poetry itself--everything from its form to its influences. But no matter what you may think of Schmidt's methods or conclusions, his credentials are above reproach. Editor of PN Review and founder and editorial director of Carcanet Press, he is a man both passionate and knowledgeable about poetry--and poets. While Schmidt does, indeed, provide biographical information about his subjects, it is with their inner lives, their imaginative landscapes, that he is chiefly concerned. Open the book to almost any page or any era, and you'll find detailed analyses of not only the poems themselves but also the times, the culture, and the literary antecedents that affected them. Of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound he writes: "Eliot and Pound rebelled together against what they saw as the misuse of free or unmetered verse." And in discussing Eliot's The Waste Land, he remarks:
In The Waste Land he demanded to be read differently from other poets. He alters our way of reading for good, if we read him properly. The poem does not respond to analysis of its meanings--meanings cannot be detached from the texture of the poetry itself.
In addition to giving the analytical part of the reader's brain a good workout, as he parses everyone from Spenser to Ashbery to Walcott, Schmidt offers up plenty of idiosyncratic opinion that will alternately raise hackles or set heads nodding in vigorous agreement. This may not be the most objective treatment of poetry to come down the pike, but it is an invaluable--and deeply entertaining--reference. --Margaret Prior --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Using Samuel Johnson's 18th-century Lives of the Poets as a blueprint, this exhaustive survey treks through 600 years of mostly British poetry in English, from Wycliffe and Wyatt to Andrew Motion and Les Murray. In each of 64 chapters crammed with juicy anecdotes ("The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips," reported an enraptured Oscar Wilde upon meeting his idol), Schmidt moves from biography to formal techniques to cultural reception. He focuses, for example, on what Donald Davie liked about Robert Burns, or Pound admired in Chaucer; on how "a living poem can engage another poem at five hundred years' distance, or across the other side of the world." While some would argue that a couple of pages summarizing The Canterbury Tales or The Prelude is insufficient, the book is more of a gathering of friends and rivals than a comprehensive companion. Schmidt, the founder of London's influential Carcanet Press (distributed here by Paul and Co.), has an intuitive sense of organizationAone sequence from Wallace Stevens to Marianne Moore to Elizabeth Bishop is smoothly connected and riveting. Throughout his tour, he lingers at major moments in political, religious and social history to show how poets have used the resources of language to respond to their respective pressures. Recently rediscovered women poets such as Emilia Lanyer, Charlotte Smith and Mina Loy receive ample attention, and 20th-century trends and movements (imagism, vorticism, confessionalism, language poetry, etc.) are forcefully elucidated. Schmidt's interest in the history of publishing shadows the main narrative, allowing the reader to emerge with greater appreciation for those publishers who gambled on their taste to disseminate the work of history's most scandalous, reclusive and devoted wordsmiths. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 992 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (October 1, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375706046
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375706042
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 2 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #353,184 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
This book is nearly 1000 pages long. Nearly every one of these pages has something to commend it to anyone interested in poetry. (In fact, as I page through, I can't seem to find one that doesn't.) Schmidt is eclectic in his selection, as one might expect from the editor of the distinguished PN Review. He draws interesting material from throughout the English speaking world and hones in, with remarkable intelligence and good taste, on what makes these poets, and their poems, worthy of our attention. He is good and always interesting on biography, which takes second place to the poems. Schmidt gets it right by focussing, when he writes on the poems themselves, on rhythms, meters, syntax, diction, and what it feels like to read them well. He is generous in many ways, to the poets, to their poems, and to his readers. I hope they are many.
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Format: Hardcover
"Lives of the Poets" covers seven hundred years of English language poets and poetry in a little under a thousand pages. Schmidt starts in the early fourteenth century--early enough that he takes several chapters to get to Chaucer--and continues right up to the present day, ending with Seamus Heaney and his contemporaries.
Schmidt's style is to take several contemporary names and treat them together in a single chapter. Sometimes he gives a poet a chapter to himself (Edmund Spenser, William Blake); sometimes he deals with half a dozen at a time. The chronological approach (which he acknowledges is disdained by some in academe) works very well in providing a narrative, a sense of unfolding of poetic skill and poetic tradition.
The period up to about 1900 is beautifully done. Most of the poets whose lives and work Schmidt describes are well-known, either for their poetry, or at least as names. He includes quite a few, however, who will be familiar only to academics or real poetry buffs--Juliana Berners, Robert Manning, Mary Wroth, William Cullen Bryant. Schmidt's prose is lively and engaging, and his love for his subjects and their poetry shines through. I found myself inspired to read the poets I didn't know. I also found his discussion of the poets I did know useful--he gives a lot of biographical detail, and makes thoughtful (and sometimes acid) comments on the poetry itself. For example, he's not a big fan of Swinburne, and while he acknowledges his popularity and influence has sharp things to say about his work.
However, Schmidt's coverage of the twentieth century is less satisfying. He covers more poets (about 130) of the twentieth century than of the previous six hundred years (about 115).
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Format: Paperback
Schmidt's history opens with an occasion on which he chaired a debate between Heaney, Walcott and Brodsky, contemporary giants - hence a portrait of himself in situ with the Gods - but its true opening scene is a typically more casual one mentioned in aside - where he tells us that his father disclaimed any further interest in his prospects when he announced his intention to publish poetry; he had put himself beyond the pale, made himself "a gambler" at best, and it is this chatty comfortableness along with self aggrandizement which holds the charm of this survey. Schmidt's paternal conference has the air of "Brideshead Revisited" as the painter Charles's father wonders aloud what became of a cousin who had run through his allowance early, gone off to Australia perhaps? Wherever possible in his account of the poets from Langland and Gower to his own stable of Khalvatis and Cissons Schmidt tries to give the impression that he was there, in spirit if not in person, and it is his identification of publishers' base motives not less than poets' fleeting visions which conspire to make this not so much a critical sourcebook as a story of how English poetry wound its roots into a tree.

Of the eighteenth century Tory publisher and clubman Tonson, whose Kit Kat club saw writers gathering with him to eat superb pies, he remarks that it was clever of him to gather writers round him so that he could pick off their completed works like berries ripened off the bush. It is just possible, he allows, that writers and publisher actually enjoyed each other's company socially. Of the printer who bought out Milton's copyright from his widow for an additional eight pounds after a total payment of fifteen, he observes that this was a good buy.
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Format: Kindle Edition
I'll talk about the book itself -- which is fantastic and addictive itself so far -- but first a warning: do not buy the kindle edition! Luckily, as I found out, it is possible to return kindle orders, perhaps within a given time. 1) the digital edition does not even have a table of contents, which is ridiculous when you have a 1000+ page book that you might want to browse; 2) the poetry formatting is terrible to the point of being distorted-- if you have a regular kindle or nook, you'll find yourself changing to the smallest font size, switching between landscape and portrait, and all kinds of crazy things in a vain attempt to see a poem in this book without confusingly chopped up lines. And this is a book, obviously, where so much depends upon the quoted poetry. Now granted, poetry formatting is not the easiest thing to do for a kindle, but surely Vintage (Vintage!) could have hired a poetry-literate designer to spend a few hours, try a little harder, perhaps make the poetry font smaller than the regular prose format, reformat the lines for the dimensions of a regular kindle at mid-font size (which is what most people who buy this edition will be trying to read on), etc. Instead, the poetry font is a little larger than the font of the regular text, shredding many of the quoted poems, even at the smallest font in landscape mode! As for the lack of a table of contents, this is just a sign that Vintage really doesn't care. It's bad enough that they charge you $17, the same price as the printed edition even when there are zero printing costs, but do they then have to give you an edition that is done so sloppily, worse than most bartleby or even scanned-in pirate editions? I will think twice before I buy a Vintage ebook again.Read more ›
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